Under Armour Sport Wireless Heart Rate review: A different kind of fitness wearable

Price when reviewed

Most fitness trackers want to keep one eye on your heart rate – and why not? It’s the body’s very own giveaway as to whether you’re literally going that extra mile. In the past, the fitness wearable industry has measured this in one of two ways: an invasive but accurate chest strap, or a non-invasive but questionably accurate wrist sensor.

Perhaps aware of the deficiencies of measuring via the wrist, a couple of companies are thinking outside of the box. A few weeks ago, I reviewed the Moov HR Sweat, which measures heart rate through the head; now, Under Armour and JBL have teamed up to produce a pair of sport wireless earphones that monitor your pulse through the ear.

On the surface, this sounds a little bizarre; but the more you consider it, the more it begins to make sense. Not only do the majority of runners like a bit of music to keep them motivated, but if you’re measuring through the ear then those very same earphones can offer up audio feedback as to how close to cardiac arrest you are, too.[gallery:1]

But if this is as sensible as it sounds then why is it that Under Armour and JBL are only one of a few companies to launch devices with such capability, and is it worth the price of entry? Let’s find out.

Under Armour Sport Wireless Heart Rate review: Design

There isn’t a great deal to say about wireless earphones. First, these are sports earphones and as such are designed to stay in place via a small frame that tucks over the top of the ears. This makes them a little fiddly to get in place to achieve a snug fit, but once the earphones are engaged, they’ll remain securely in place. Unlike Apple’s AirPods, these aren’t individual ear buds that can be separated; they’re held together with cabling that also hosts the headphones’ rudimentary volume controls.

The most important thing about the design is that while the app will give you periodic updates to the schedule you pick, you can also get a heart-rate readout at any time, simply by tapping the right earbud. Whether you think that’s more convenient than glancing at your wrist will vary from person to person, but I like it. It feels more natural and it’s less distracting than switching screens on a smartwatch.[gallery:3]

Under Armour Sport Wireless Heart Rate review: Performance

We’ll first tackle an important issue for wireless earphones: battery life. Under Armour claims you’re looking at five hours continuous audio playback with the heart-rate functionality enabled – and that seems fair. There isn’t much to worry about if they don’t make it that far, however: the earphones charge in two hours via micro-USB, so you should rarely be caught out. On the one occasion I forgot to charge them, I was still able to eke out enough power to see me through a 20-minute run (without heart-rate tracking) following the first dreaded “battery low” notification popped up on my walk to the start line.

The audio is supplied by JBL, and once firmly secured, the sound quality is decent – certainly good enough for a run around a park, or a session at the gym – although these earphones don’t offer active noise-cancelling. For me, that’s absolutely fine; running in London with noise-cancelling headphones is a recipe for a visit to one of the city’s many fine medical establishments.

What do I mean by “decent?” I mean significantly better than the bundled headphones you get with smartphones – but not the best I’ve heard. While the sound quality is good, there’s a tendency for heavy basslines to dominate, overpowering more subtle sounds. The mid to high tones are similarly affected, with harsh, aggressive notes across the board. There’s little room for subtlety, in other words, which isn’t the worst thing in the world if you’re in a noisy gym, but may be a bit off-putting on a serene trail run.[gallery:6]

Like I said, decent. The trouble is that “decent” is fantastic for a pair of £15 earphones. It’s good for a pair of £50 earphones. For earphones that cost £1670, and that are specifically designed for exercise only, it’s a tough sell. I love them and would be unlikely to use anything else for running, given that they’re wireless, stay in place and offer decent sound quality – but would I pay £170 for them? I can’t see it.

But let’s get on to the other side of performance: the heart-rate sensor. The numbers appear accurate. While running multiple 5km runs, the earphones would give me readouts of between 155 and 180bpm (beats per minutes). That seems close to what other devices I’ve tested have offered and is far more accurate than the Fitbit Blaze on my wrist, which claims I never break 145bps. Given that on one of these occasions I did my second-best ever 5km time (25:04, since you ask), I’m going to take Under Armour’s word on this one.

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